Batman: Hong Kong

By Doug Moench, & Tony Wong (DC Comics)
ISBN 978-1-4012-0057-2 (HB)                     978-1-4012-0101-2 (TPB)

This Batman outreach project is a surprisingly engaging piece of Hong Kong cinema in comic form by veteran scribe Doug Moench and the anonymous horde of illustrators used by Comics Supremo Tony Wong to churn out literally thousands of lavishly executed Kung Fu comics that have earned him the title “the Stan Lee of Hong Kong”.

The story itself is fairly unsurprising tosh. A serial killer who webcasts his murders as real-time snuff movies leads Batman to the former British colony and a civil war between a Triad leader and his brother: a cop determined to bring him to book.

Add to the mix a dashing young nephew who loves his family but thirsts for justice and you have all the elements for the next Johnny To, Kazuya Shiraishi or Park Hoon-jung blockbuster nerve-jangler.

Although a touch stiff in places and a little disorienting if you’re unused to the rapid art-style transitions of Hong Kong comics (artists and even forms of representation – paint, black line wash, crayon etc. can vary from panel to panel) this has a lot of pace and fairly rattles along. In this anniversary year, Batman: Hong Kong is still loads better and more accessible than many outings for the caped crusader of recent years and well worth the time and effort of any diehard Dark Knight aficionado in sech of a rarer flavour.
© 2004 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Batman: Harvest Breed

By George Pratt & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-56389-692-7 (HC)        978-1-84023-701-6 (Titan Books UK edition HC)

Sometimes even the best of intentions and greatest of artisans don’t quite produce the best result. Master illustrator George Pratt returned tangentially to the Vietnam War for the backstory of this memorable supernatural thriller starring the Dark Knight, but the overall results fall short of his superb par, as established with the landmark Enemy Ace: War Idyll. Even so…

Bruce Wayne is tortured by bloody nightmares of devils and sacrifices as a mysterious killer seeks to re-enact a murder-ritual based on the points of a cross.

Such ritual has been attempted many times throughout history, but on this particular occasion the stakes seem much higher – and far more personal.

Only a girl named Luci Boudreaux, escapee and survivor of the Hell on Earth that was Viet Nam seems to have any answers to the dilemma…

Although painted with astounding passion and skill, and frequently offering unforgettable imagery, the story seems to have been sadly neglected and is – quite frankly – a bit of a mess, with war veterans, voodoo priests, faith-healers, demons and an uncomfortable misunderstanding of the relationship between Batman and Police Commissioner Jim Gordon muddying a rather tired old plot.

Even so, there are plenty of movie blockbusters that have got away with far less to great acclaim and for richer rewards.

If you love bleak and moody style over content, or can always find room for the blackest crannies infested by the darkest of knights, you might want to hunt this down and give it a shot.

So, even if you’re not a Bat-completist, in this anniversary year, there’s still a reason to step out of the light into forgotten realms with the world’s most popular superhero.
© 2000 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Batman/Deadman: Death and Glory

By James Robinson & John Estes (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-84856-213-4 (HB)                    978-1-56389-228-8 (TPB)

Everybody thinks they know Batman but to only a select few are the secrets of assassinated trapeze artist Boston Brand also revealed. An ordinary man in a brutal, cynical world, Brand was a soul in balance until killed as part of a pointless initiation for a trainee assassin.

When the unlucky aerialist died, instead of going to whatever reward awaited him, Rama Kushna, spirit of the universe, offered him the chance to solve his own murder. That opportunity evolved into an unending mission to balance the scales between good and evil in the world. The ghost is intangible and invisible to all mortals, but has the ability to “walk into” living beings, possessing and controlling them.

Gotham City: Batman gradually regains consciousness, realising he is facing a squad of armed, trigger-happy police and holding a knife to the throat of a hostage. The scene is a nightclub-turned-charnel house and all evidence before the hero’s widened eyes indicates that he is the murderous culprit…

Suddenly clear-headed and rational, he drops his victim and escapes the SWAT teams, determined to find out what has happened since he lost consciousness. Stepping broadly out of character, Batman uses magical items taken from villainous sorcerer Felix Faust to perform an eldritch rite and snags his prime suspect, Boston Brand. Unfortunately, old comrade Deadman is not the guilty party, but does reveal that a rich man who has sold his soul to the devil is responsible for all the Dark Knight’s woes.

Meanwhile, Albert Yeats, terminally ill and imminently dying, is running for what’s left of his life, hunted by things he doesn’t know and can’t understand…

Determined to renege, Frederick Chaplin has offered another’s soul in exchange for his hellbound one, and the devil has accepted. Yeats had been chosen by the universe to reincarnate as the Messiah in his extremely imminent next life, but that can’t happen if he’s paying Chaplin’s tab in the Inferno.

Deadman has been watching over Yeats until he safely passes, but when Batman is first possessed and subsequently distracts the Ghostly Guardian with his spell, Yeats is left alone and unprotected…

Now the kid is in the wind and the heroes must find and shield him long enough to die safely: a task complicated by an entire city hunting what they still think is a murderous Bat-Maniac, whilst the real possession-killer – a phantom, satanic counterpart to Deadman called the Clown who has spread terror and death for 70 years – is loose to spread his own unholy kind of havoc…

Intriguing and pretty, but lacking much of the emotional punch of earlier Batman/Deadman pairings, Death and Glory looks great even if it feels rather dispirited and glib in its attempts to blend urban horror, all-out chase action, cod-religion and hidden histories with a millennial feel-good factor. The result is a top-rate outing for Boston Brand but a rather forced and unlikely performance from the Dark Knight.

Nevertheless, fans of both heroes will find lots to love here and Estes’ painted illustration will win the approval of most comic art lovers. This book is still available through physical and online outlets, in both paperback and hardcover editions but not yet as digital delight…
© 1996 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Crisis on Multiple Earths volume 1

By Gardner Fox, Mike Sekowsky, Bernard Sachs & Sid Greene (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-56389-895-2

As I’ve frequently mentioned before, I was one of the “Baby Boomer” crowd which grew up with Julie Schwartz, Gardner Fox and John Broome’s tantalisingly slow reintroduction of Golden Age superheroes during the halcyon, eternally summery days of the early 1960s. To me those fascinating counterpart crusaders from Earth-Two weren’t vague and distant memories rubber-stamped by parents or older brothers – they were cool, fascinating and enigmatically new.

…And for some reason the “proper” heroes of Earth-One held them in high regard and treated them with obvious deference…

The transcendent wonderment began, naturally enough, in The Flash; pioneering trendsetter of the Silver Age Revolution. After successfully ushering in the triumphant return of the superhero concept, the Scarlet Speedster – with Fox & Broome at the writing reins – set an unbelievably high standard for costumed adventure in sharp, witty tales of science and imagination, always illustrated with captivating style and clean simplicity by Carmine Infantino.

The epochal epic that literally changed the scope of American comics forever was Fox’s ‘Flash of Two Worlds’ (Flash #123 September 1961, and reprinted in loads of places, but not here): introducing the concept of alternate Earths to the continuity and by extension the multiversal structure of the future DCU as well as all the succeeding cosmos-shaking yearly “Crisis” sagas that grew from it.

Moreover, where DC led, others followed…

Received with tumultuous acclaim, the concept was revisited months later in Flash #129 which also teasingly reintroduced evergreen stalwarts – Wonder Woman, the Atom, Hawkman, Green Lantern, Doctor Mid-Nite and Black Canary: venerable members of the fabled Justice Society of America. Clearly Editor Schwartz had something in mind…

That tale directly led into the veteran team’s first meeting with the Justice League of America and the start of an annual tradition. When ‘Flash of Two Worlds’ brought us the notion of Infinite Earths and multiple iterations of costumed crusaders, public pressure had begun almost instantly to agitate for the return of the Greats of the “Golden Age”. The Editorial powers-that-be were hesitant, fearing too many heroes would be silly and unmanageable, or worse yet, put readers off. If they could see us now…

These innovative adventures generated an avalanche of popular and critical approval (big sales figures, too) so inevitably the trans-dimensional tests led to the ultimate team-up in the summer of 1963.

This gloriously enthralling volume – available in trade paperback and digital incarnations – is the first of a glorious sequence of collections celebrating Infinite Diversity in Infinite Costumes (extra fanboy kudos if you get where I filched that from!) and re-presents the first four JLA/JSA convocations: stunning superhero wonderments which never fail to astound and delight. It also comes with context-conveying Introduction ‘1 & 2 = Crisis’ from wonder-scribe Mark Waid detailing even more cool facts behind the phenomenon…

The comic book catharsis commences with the landmark ‘Crisis on Earth-One’ and ‘Crisis on Earth-Two’ (from Justice League of America #21-22, August & September 1963) combining to form one of the most important stories in DC history and arguably one of the most crucial tales in American literature: at least the stuff with pictures in it.

Written by Fox and compellingly illustrated by Mike Sekowsky & Bernard Sachs, the yarn finds a coalition of assorted villains from each Earth plundering at will, meeting and defeating the mighty Justice League before insufferably imprisoning them in their own secret mountain HQ…

Temporarily helpless, “our” heroes contrive a desperate plan to combine forces with the champions of another Earth to save the world – both of it – and the result is pure Fights ‘n’ Tights majesty.

It’s impossible for me to be totally objective about this saga. I was a drooling kid in short trousers when I first read it and the thrills haven’t diminished with this umpty-first re-reading.

This is what superhero comics are all about!

The buying public clearly agreed and one year later ‘Crisis on Earth-Three’ and ‘The Most Dangerous Earth of All!’ (Justice League of America #29-30) reprised the team-up of the Justice League and Justice Society, when the super-beings of a third alternate Earth discover the secret of trans-universal travel.

Unfortunately, Ultraman, Owlman, Superwoman, Johnny Quick and Power Ring are villains on a world without heroes who see the costumed crime-busters of the JLA/JSA as living practise dummies to sharpen their evil skills upon.

With this cracking thriller the annual summer get-together became solidly entrenched in heroic lore, giving fans endless entertainment for years to come and making the approaching end of school holidays less gloomy than they could have been.

(A little note: although the comic cover-date in America was the month by which unsold copies had to be returned – the “off-sale” deadline – export copies to Britain travelled as ballast in freighters. Thus, they usually went on to those cool, spinning comic-racks in the actual month printed on the front. You can unglaze your eyes and return to the review proper now, and thank you for your patient indulgence of an old and misty-eyed man…)

The third annual event was a touch different; a largely forgotten and rather experimental tale wherein the educationally-challenged and extremely larcenous Johnny Thunder of Earth-1 wrests control of the genie-like Thunderbolt from his otherworld counterpart: employing its magical powers to change the events which created of all Earth-1’s superheroes.

With Earth-1 catastrophically altered in #37’s ‘Earth – Without a Justice League’, it’s suddenly up to the JSA to save the day in a gripping battle of wits and power before Reality is re-established in #38’s concluding chapter ‘Crisis on Earth-A!’.

Veteran inker Bernard Sachs retired before the fourth team-up, leaving the amazing Sid Greene to embellish the gloriously whacky saga that closes this tome: one springing out of the global “Batmania” craze engendered by the Batman television series…

A wise-cracking campy tone was fully in play, acknowledging the changing audience profile and this time the stakes are raised to encompass the destruction of both planets in ‘Crisis Between Earth-One and Earth-Two’ and ‘The Bridge Between Earths’ (Justice League of America #46-47, August & September 1966).

Here a bold – if rash – continuum warping experiment drags the twin sidereal worlds towards an inexorable hyper-space collision. Meanwhile, making matters worse, an awesome anti-matter being uses the opportunity to break into and explore our positive-matter universe whilst the heroes of both worlds are distracted by the destructive rampages of monster-men Blockbuster and Solomon Grundy.

Peppered with wisecracks and “hip” dialogue, it’s sometimes difficult to discern what a cracking yarn this actually is, but if you’re able to forgive or swallow the dated patter, this is one of the very best plotted and illustrated stories in the entire JLA/JSA canon. Furthermore, the vastly talented Greene’s expressive subtlety, beguiling textures and whimsical humour add unheard-of depth to Sekowsky’s pencils and the light and frothy comedic scripts of Fox.

These titanic tales won’t suit everybody and I’m as aware as any that in terms of the “super-powered” genre the work here can be boiled down to two bunches of heroes formulaically getting together to deal with extra-extraordinary problems. In mature hindsight, it’s obviously also about sales and the attempted revival of more sellable super characters during a period of intense commercial competition between DC Comics and Marvel.

But I don’t have to be mature in my off-hours and for those who love costumed dramas, who crave these cunningly constructed modern mythologies and actually care, this is simply a grand parade of straightforward action, great causes and momentous victories.

…And since I wouldn’t have it any other way, why should you?
© 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 2002 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Batman: Detective #27

By Michael Uslan & Peter Snejbjerg with Lee Loughridge (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1401201852 (HB)                        978-1401201074 (TPB)

Oooh! Ooh! More Batman!! …Ish.

Not so long ago and for a brief while, DC’s experimental Elseworlds imprint, where familiar characters and continuity were radically or subtly re-imagined, was a regular hive of productivity and generated some wonderful – and quite a few ridiculous – stories.

Moreover, by using what the readers thought they knew as a springboard, the result, usually constricted into a disciplined single story, had a solid and resolute immediacy that was too often diluted in regular, periodical publications where the illusion of change always trumps actual innovation in long-running characters.

A fine example is this intriguing pulp mystery and generational drama blending the lineage of the Wayne family of Gotham City with covert societies and the secret history of the United States of America.

April 1865, Washington DC: President Lincoln overrides the objections of Allan Pinkerton (who had created the Secret Service to protect him) and goes to see Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre. His assassination prompts the infuriated security genius to create a dedicated clandestine force beyond the reach of everything but their mission and their own consciences…

April 1929, Gotham City: a doctor, his wife and their young son exit a movie theatre where they have thrilled to the exploits of Douglas Fairbanks as Zorro. Suddenly, sneak thieves confront them and in the struggle Thomas and Martha Wayne are gunned down, leaving a grieving boy kneeling over their bloody corpses. Family butler Alfred packs the coldly resolute boy off on a decade-long world tour to study with masters of criminology around the globe…

Lincoln’s murder was planned by a cabal of Confederate plotters named the Knights of the Golden Circle. Their leader, an early eugenics-inspired geneticist named Josiah Carr, outlines a Doomsday vengeance plot that will take decades to complete…

January 1st 1939: Bruce Wayne returns to Gotham ready to begin his life’s mission, but is diverted when crusading newspaperman Lee Travis reveals the existence of the Secret Society of Detectives and invites the young man to become their 27th operative since Pinkerton…

Charming and relentlessly compelling, this superbly pacy thriller follows two time-lines as the founding Detective hunts the Golden Circle through the years, enlisting the covert aid of many historical figures such as Kate Warne (America’s first female detective), journalist and President-to-be Teddy Roosevelt and biologist/monk Gregor Mendel whilst Wayne closes in on the climax of the Doomsday plot with the aid of Babe Ruth and Sigmund Freud. He even confronts customised versions of such classic Bat-foes as Catwoman, Scarecrow, Hugo Strange and the Joker.

Best of all there’s a deliciously wry cameo from the Golden Age Superman as well as a magnificent surprise ending to this two-fisted tribute to the “Thud-and-Blunder” era of the 1930s pulps…

This is a conspiracy thriller stuffed to overflowing with in-jokes, referential asides, pop culture clues and universal icons that make The Da Vinci Code and its legion of even more tedious knock-offs look like a bunch of dry words on dusty paper. The only flaw is that writer Uslan and artists Snejbjerg & Loughridge were never able to create a sequel…

And just in case you’re wondering…Detective Comics #27 (May 1939) featured the very first appearance of a certain Dark Knight…
© 2003 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

SHAZAM!: The Greatest Stories Ever Told

By Bill Parker, C.C. Beck, Joe Simon & Jack Kirby, Otto Binder, Denny O’Neil, Elliot S! Maggin, Roy Thomas, Joey Cavalieri, Alan Grant, Jerry Ordway, Steve Vance, Kurt Schaffenberger, Curt Swan, Gil Kane, Barry Kitson, Peter Krause, John Delaney & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-1674-0 (TPB)

Superhero movies season is hurtling down on us now so let’s cash in a bit…

Hard on the heels of the superb Shazam!: Monster Society of Evil collection came a most welcome addition to DC’s much missed Greatest Stories… line: an anthological review featuring some wonderful moments from the stellar, if chequered, career of the World’s Mightiest Mortal.

First seen in the February 1940 issue of Whiz Comics (#2 – there was no #1) and cashing in on the sales phenomenon of Superman, the big red riot was the brainchild of writer/editor Bill Parker and young illustrator Charles Clarence Beck.

Drawn in a style reminiscent of early Hergé, ‘Introducing Captain Marvel’ saw homeless orphan Billy Batson lured into an abandoned subway tunnel to a meeting with millennia-old wizard Shazam. At the end of a long, long life fighting evil, the white-bearded figure grants the lad the power of six gods and heroes (Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles and Mercury) and urges him to carry on the good fight. In thirteen delightfully clean and simple pages Billy gets his powers, has his secret origin revealed (he’s heir to a fortune embezzled by his crooked uncle Ebenezer), gets a job as a radio reporter and defeats the mad scheme of Doctor Thaddeus Bodog Sivana who is holding the airwaves of America hostage.

Originally dispensing the same sort of summary rough justice as his contemporaries, the character soon distanced himself from the pack – Man of Steel included – by an increasingly light, surreal and comedic touch, which made Captain Marvel the best-selling comics character in America. For a period, Captain Marvel Adventures was published twice a month, and he was the star in a number of other titles too.

(Billy’s alter ego could beat everybody but copyright lawyers; during his years of inactivity the trademarked name passed to a number of other publishers before settling at Marvel Comics and they are never, never, never letting go. You can check out their cinematic blockbuster version this summer…)

In the formative years there was actually a scramble to fill pages. From Captain Marvel Adventures #1 (1941) comes an untitled drama of alien slavers produced in a bit of a hurry by Golden Age Dream-Team Joe Simon & Jack Kirby.

It’s probably fair to say that this rambunctious rarity is included for its name-value alone, but the third tale, ‘The Trio of Terror’ (The Marvel Family #21, 1948), is prime stuff from Beck and brilliant prolific writer Otto Binder, full of sly whimsy as three demons escape the netherworld to plague ours.

Many of the storytelling innovations we find commonplace today were invented by the creative folk at Fawcett – the original publishers of Captain Marvel. From Captain Marvel Adventures #137 (1952) comes ‘King Kull and the Seven Deadly Sins’ by Binder and Beck, wherein a beast-king from a pre-human civilisation frees the embodiments of Man’s greatest enemies to plague the planet.

These are wholesome tales for the entire family, however, so don’t worry – “Lust” has become “Injustice” and “Wrath” is “Hatred”, here.

There are two yarns from the good Captain’s final year of Golden Age publication. DC, in their original identity of National Periodical Publications, had filed suit against Fawcett for copyright infringement as soon as Whiz Comics #2 was released, and the companies had slugged it out ever since. In 1953, with sales of superhero comics decimated by changing tastes, Captain Marvel’s publishers decided to capitulate.

DC eventually acquired all rights, titles and properties to the characters. But that last year saw some of the best tales in the entire run, represented here by the wonderfully surreal ‘Captain Marvel Battles the World’ (Captain Marvel Adventures #148, September1952, by Binder and Beck) and ‘The Primate Plot’ (The Marvel Family #85, July 1953): a dramatic and very funny precursor to the movie Planet of the Apes, by Binder and Kurt Schaffenberger.

Beck returned to commercial and magazine illustration, but Binder & Schaffenberger soon joined the victorious opposition, becoming key Superman creators of the next few decades.

In 1973, DC decided to revive the Good Captain for a new generation and see if his unique charm would work another sales miracle during one of comics’ periodic downturns.

From the comicbook re-titled, for those pesky copyright reasons, Shazam!, the tale that bought him back was written by Denny O’Neil, and illustrated by the returned and resurgent Beck.

‘In the Beginning…’ and ‘The World’s Wickedest Plan’ (Shazam! #1, February 1973) retold the origin and explained that the Captain, his super-powered family and all the supporting cast (there’s a very useful seating chart-cum-biography page provided for your perusal) had been trapped in a timeless state for 20 years by the invidious Sivana Family who had subsequently been trapped in their own Suspendium device.

The sales and fan rivalry of the Man of Steel and The Big Red Cheese (Sivana’s pet name for his stout-hearted nemesis) had endured for decades, and in 1974 Julius Schwartz took full advantage by having the two finally – if notionally – meet.

Superman #276 featured ‘Make Way for Captain Thunder’ by Elliot S! Maggin, Curt Swan and Bob Oksner, a trans-dimensional tussle to delight 10-year-olds of all ages. Incidentally, Captain Thunder was one of the options considered in 1940 before Fawcett went with the Marvel name.

Beck was profoundly unhappy with the quality of stories he was given to draw and soon left the series. One of his assistants and stable-mates from the Fawcett days had been a Superman Family mainstay for nearly twenty years and smoothly fitted into the vacated lead-artist position. Kurt Schaffenberger was delighted to again be drawing one of his all-time favourite assignments again, and his shining run is represented here by #14’s ‘The Evil Return of the Monster Society’ scripted by Denny O’Neil in 1974.

Captain Marvel’s blend of charm, drama and whimsy made and remade many fans, even prompting a live action TV series, but never enough to keep the series going in such economically trying times. Despite its cancellation, however, the series persevered in back-up slots in other magazines and the character still made the occasional bombastic guest-appearance such as 1984’s DC Comics Presents Annual #3.

‘With One Magic Word’ saw Sivana appropriate the mystic lightning that empowers Billy Batson, leading to a Battle Royale with not just the Marvel Family but also the Supermen of both Earth’s 1 and 2 (this was mere months before Crisis on Infinite Earths lumped all these heroes onto one terribly beleaguered and crowded world).

This cracking 40-page romp was plotted by long-time fan Roy Thomas, written by Joey Cavalieri and illustrated by the fabulous Gil Kane.

Now fully part of the DC universe Captain Marvel popped up everywhere. He was even a long-suffering straight man in Justice League International for a while…

From L.E.G.I.O.N ‘91 #31 (1991), by Alan Grant & Barry Kitson, comes the wickedly funny slugfest ‘Where Dreams End’, as the big guy has to try and reason with a drunk and hostile Lobo, and when he once more had his own series, spinning off from the superb original graphic novel The Power of Shazam!, a new high-point of quality entertainment was achieved – and sustained – by Jerry Ordway, Peter Krause & Dick Giordano.

‘Yeah – This is a Face Only a Mother Could Love…’ (from The Power of Shazam! #33, 1997) is a powerful, poignant treatment of intolerance and the collateral damage of superhero encounters where Billy tries to help a school-friend hideously scarred by his arch-foe the Arson Fiend. It’s possibly the best executed and least known story in the book.

This lovely compilation ends with a zesty delight from all-ages Adventures in the DC Universe (#15, 1998). Here Steve Vance, John Delaney & Ron Boyd create a testing time for Billy when Zeus decides to see if his modern beneficiary is actually worthy of his power in ‘Out of a Dark Cloud’.

The original Captain Marvel is a genuine icon of American comics history and a brilliantly conceived superhero for all ages. This collection, which only scratches the surface of the canon of delights produced over the years, is a perfect introduction to the world of comics and one that will appeal to readers of any age and temperament. Still available in paperback, let’s hope the modern hoopla convinces DC to rerelease it in both printed and digital editions…
© 1940, 1941, 1948, 1952, 1953, 1973, 1974, 1984, 1991, 1997, 1998, 2008, DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Batman: Nine Lives

By Dean Motter, Michael Lark & Matt Hollingsworth (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-56389-853-2 (HC)                    978-1-84023-358-2 (Titan Books HC edition)

This March sees the 80th anniversary of the Bat-Man’s debut and gosh-by-golly I’m getting pretty stoked with all the anticipation. I trust there to be some fuss about the event. I’m also getting my Nerd on by indulging myself in a few fond looks back. Here’s another taste of the amazing influence the Dark Knight has exerted over the decades, and one more tome just begging for a new edition and some digital exposure…

The depictions and narrative signatures of the post-war genre “Film Noir” are powerful and evocative, celebrating a certain weary worldliness as much as stark lighting and visual moodiness ever did. That said, this murky world seems a natural milieu for Batman tales, but there are precious few that make the effort, and so very few of those successfully carry it off.

This superb alternative adventure published under DC’s Elseworlds imprint (wherein the company’s key characters are translated out-of-continuity for adventures that don’t really count) is a magnificent exception, combining hard-boiled detective yarning with the icons of gangster movies.

1946: Selina Kyle was a woman everybody wanted, and who exploited that fact fully. When The Batman finds her ravaged corpse in the sewers, there’s no shortage of suspects. Was she murdered by a high-society big-shot like Oliver Queen, Harvey Dent or Bruce Wayne, desperate to keep her quiet, or was one of her more sinister consorts-du-crime to blame?

Gangsters like jilted embezzler Eddie Nigma, mob-boss ‘Clayface’ Hagen, The Poker Joker, The Penguin or even the stone-cold hit-man Mr Freeze might have snuffed her in an instant if expedient, and seedy gumshoe Dick Grayson knows that he’ll be just as expendable if he digs too deep into the private affairs of the Highest and Lowest denizens of Gotham. But somehow, he just can’t let go…

Reconfiguring key figures of the venerable mythos as such recognisable archetypes – although perhaps obvious – is still a wonderfully effective way to revitalize them. The plot is as engrossing as any movie masterpiece and the human analogues of the bizarre and baroque Bat-cast are just as menacing even without outlandish powers and costumes. And through it all lurks a bizarre vigilante dressed as a bat, once again a mad element of relentless chaos that he can no longer be in his regular mainstream comic outings…

Although a pastiche derived from many sources, Nine Lives is a brilliant and engrossing read, seamlessly and stylishly blending mystery, crime-caper and sophisticated suspense thriller with moody visuals and a cynical tone that will show any hold-out naysayer that comics have as much to offer as any other creative medium.

Hunt this down and make it yours or pray that it’s due for a fresh release ASAP.
© 2002 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Batman/Tarzan: Claws of the Catwoman

By Ron Marz, Igor Kordey & various (Dark Horse Books/DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-5697-1466-9 (US TPB)            978-1-84023-235-6 (Titan Books edition)

I’m never particularly comfortable with the passion for cross-pollination that seems to obsess comics publishers. I admit that occasionally something greater than the sum of the originals does result, but usually the only outcome of jamming two different concepts into the same package is an uncomfortable, ill-fitting mess. So this tale – originally a 4-issue inter-company miniseries from the turn of the century – is a welcome example of success, and I’ll even offer a possible explanation for why…

This March sees the 80th anniversary of the Bat-Man’s debut. I expect there to be some fuss about the event and maybe even the re-release of a few lost treasures from his vast canon. I hope this is one of them…

Although primarily a literary and filmic phenomenon, Tarzan of the Apes has certainly won his spurs in graphic narrative. Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novel was published in 1912, with movies cropping up from 1917 onwards. The first pictorial adventures came on January 7th 1929: a newspaper daily strip by Hal Foster augmented by a full-page Sunday serial by Rex Maxon from March 15th 1931. It’s still running. In 1947, Lord Greystoke conquered the comicbook arena, beginning in Dell’s Four Color Comics #134 and 161 before hurtling into his own long-lived title in January 1948.

So what’s on offer here?

When Great White Hunter Finnegan Dent returns to Gotham City with artefacts from a lost city he has discovered in Africa, his sponsor and backer is delighted. But Bruce Wayne has reason to change his mind when he meets John Clayton, a charismatic English Lord known alternatively as Greystoke or Tarzan of the Apes…

The two quickly discover they have a lots in common: both orphans due to crime, extraordinary men shaped by wealth, privilege and mutual interest in Justice, albeit in very different and particular jungles…

When the feline Princess Khefretari tries to steal back the looted treasures of her very-much-thriving civilisation, she catapults the heroes into a frantic chase and dire battle against a ruthless monomaniac.

This classical pulp-informed tale invokes all the basic drives of both characters without ever getting bogged down in continuity or trivia. It is first and foremost an action adventure, full of emotional punches delivered with relentless rapidity. There are good guys and bad guys, no extraneous fripperies and plenty of cliffhanger moments before virtue triumphs and evil is punished.

In Claws of the Catwoman you need only have the most meagre grounding in either character to enjoy this simple thriller – and you will, so let’s hope it’s on someone’s schedule for republishing…
Text and illustrations © 1999, 2000 Dark Horse Comics, Inc., DC Comics, Inc. & Edgar Rice Burroughs Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Batman Beyond

By Hilary J. Bader, Rich Burchett, Joe Staton & Terry Beatty (DC comics)
ISBN: 978-1-56389-604-0

This March sees the 80th anniversary of the Bat-Man’s debut. I expect there to be some fuss about the event. I shall certainly be indulging myself in a few fond looks back. Here’s a taste of the amazing influence the Caped Crusader has exerted over the decades, and a book long overdue for a new edition and some digital exposure…

The Batman Animated TV series masterminded by Bruce Timm & Paul Dini in the 1990s revolutionised the Dark Knight and also led to some of the absolute best comicbook adventures in his entire publishing history with the tie-in monthly printed series.

With his small screen credentials firmly re-established, follow-up series began (and are still coming), even ultimately feeding back into and enriching the overarching DCU continuity.

Following those award-winning episodes, in 1999 came a new incarnation set a generation into the future, featuring Bruce Wayne in the twilight of his life while a new teenaged hero picked up the eerily-scalloped mantle. In Britain the series was uninspirationally re-titled Batman of the Future but for most of the extremely-impressed-despite-themselves cognoscenti and awe-struck kids everywhere it was Batman Beyond!

Once again, the show was augmented by a cool kids’ comicbook and this collection collects the first 6-issue miniseries in a hip and trendy, immensely entertaining package suitable for fans and aficionados of all ages. Although not necessary to the reader’s enjoyment, a passing familiarity with the TV episodes will enhance the overall experience…

All stories are written by Hilary J. Bader and the book opens with a 2-art adaptation of the pilot episode, illustrated by Rick Burchett & Terry Beatty. ‘Not on My Watch!’ offers brief glimpses of the last days of Batman’s crusade against crime before age, infirmity and injury slow him down to the point of compromising his principles and endangering the citizens he’s sworn to protect…

Years later, Gotham City in the mid-21st century (notionally accepted as 2039 CE – 100 years after the comicbook debut of Batman in Detective Comics #27) is a dystopian urban jungle where angry, rebellious school-kid Terry McGinnis strikes a blow against pernicious street-punks The Jokerz and is chased out of the metropolis to the gates of a ramshackle mansion.

Meanwhile, his research-scientist father has discovered a little too much about the company he works for…

Wayne-Powers used to be a decent place to work before old man Wayne became a recluse. Now Derek Powers runs the show and is ruthless enough to do anything to increase his profits…

Outside town, Terry is saved from a potentially fatal encounter with the Jokerz by a burly old man who then collapses. Helping the aged Bruce Wayne inside the mansion, Terry discovers the long-neglected Batcave before being chased away by the surly Wayne. He really doesn’t care… until he gets home to find his father has been murdered.

A storm of mixed emotions, McGinnis returns to Wayne Manor…

Concluding chapter ‘I Am Batman’ sees him attempt to force Wayne to act before giving up in frustration and simply stealing the hero’s greatest weapon; a cybernetic bat-suit that enhances strength, speed, durability and perception. Alone, untrained and unaided, the new Batman sets to exact justice and take revenge…

In the ensuing clash with Powers, the unscrupulous entrepreneur is mutated into a radioactive monster named Blight before Wayne and Terry reach a tenuous truce and working understanding. For the moment, Terry will continue to clean up the Dark Knight’s city as a probationary, apprentice hero…

With issue #3 Bader, Burchett & Beatty crafted original stories in the newly established future Gotham, commencing with ‘Never Mix, Never Worry’ wherein Blight returns to steal a selection of man-made radioactive elements which can only be used to cause harm… or can they?

Joe Staton assumed the pencilling role with #4 as a schoolboy nerd frees a devil from limbo and old man Wayne introduces cocksure Terry to parapsychologist Jason Blood and his eldritch alter ego Etrigan the Demon in spooky shocker ‘Magic Is Everywhere’: a sentiment repeated when a school-trip to the museum unleashes ancient lovers who feed on life energy in the delightfully comical tragedy of ‘Mummy, Oh! and Juliet’

This captivating compendium of action and adventure ends with another compelling and edgy thriller as Terry stumbles into a return bout with a shape-shifting super-thief in ‘Permanent Inque Stains’, only to find that there are far worse crimes and far more evil villains haunting his city…

Fun, thrilling and surprisingly moving, these tales remain magnificent examples of thrilling comics that appeal to young and old alike. Stick ‘em on the same shelf as Tintin, Asterix and Carl Barks’ Uncle Scrooge tales and you can’t go wrong…

In 2000 Titan Books released a British edition re-titled Batman of the Future (to comply with the renamed UK TV series) and this version is a little easier to locate by those eager to enjoy the stories rather than own an artefact.
© 1999 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Teen Titans: The Silver Age Volume Two

By Bob Haney, Len Wein, Marv Wolfman, Nick Cardy, Irv Novick, Bill Draut, Gil Kane, Wally Wood, Neal Adams & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-8517-3 (TPB)

The concept of kid hero teams was already ancient when the 1960s Batman TV show finally prompted DC to trust their big heroes’ assorted sidekicks with their own regular comic. The outcome was a fab, hip and groovy ensemble as dedicated to helping kids as they were to stamping out insidious evil.

The biggest difference between the creation of the Teen Titans and wartime groups such as The Young Allies, Newsboy Legion and Boy Commandos or even 1950s holdovers like The Little Wise Guys or Boys Ranch was quite simply the burgeoning phenomena of “The Teenager” as a discrete social and commercial force.

These were kids who could – and should – be allowed to do things themselves without constant adult help or supervision…

This quirkily eclectic trade paperback and eBook compilation re-presents the rapidly-evolving and ending swinging Sixties exploits from Teen Titans #12-24 plus a guest-shot from The Brave and the Bold #83 collectively spanning November/December 1967 to November/December 1967 1969.

With Bob Haney still scripting and the accent still heavily on fun, the action resumes here with twin contemporary hot-topics the Space-Race and Disc Jockeys informing whacky sci fi thriller ‘Large Trouble in Space-Ville!’ Illustrated by Irv Novick & Nick Cardy, the gang thwart aliens stealing Earth’s monuments after which Cardy flies solo for TT #13, producing a seasonal comics masterpiece with ‘The TT’s Swingin’ Christmas Carol!’, a stylish retelling that’s one of the most reprinted Titans tales ever.

At this time Cardy’s art really opened up as he grasped the experimental flavour of the times. The cover of #14, as well as the interior illustration for the grim psycho-thriller ‘Requiem for a Titan’, are unforgettable. The tale introduces the team’s first serious returning villain (Mad Mod does not count!): the Gargoyle is mesmerising and memorable, and although Cardy only inked Lee Elias’s pencils for #15’s eccentric tryst with the Hippie counter-culture, ‘Captain Rumble Blasts the Scene!’ is a genuinely unique crime-thriller from a time when nobody over age 25 understood what the youth of the world was doing…

Teen Titans #16 returned to more solid ground with superb, scene-setting thriller ‘The Dimensional Caper!’ as rapacious sinister aliens infiltrate a rural high-school (and how many times have you seen that plot used since this 1968 epic?).

Cardy’s art reached dizzying heights of innovation both here and in the next issue’s waggish jaunt to London ‘Holy Thimbles, It’s the Mad Mod!’ (alternatively and uninspiringly retitled ‘The Return of the Mad Mod’ here). The frantic criminal chase through Cool Britannia which unfolds even includes a command performance from Her Majesty, the Queen!

Next up is a fannish landmark – and hint of things to come – as novice writers Len Wein & Marv Wolfman got their big break with a tale introducing Russian superhero Starfire (latterly redubbed Red Star) which set them firmly on a path of teen super-team writing. ‘Eye of the Beholder’ is a cool cat burglar/super heist yarn set in trendy Stockholm, drawn with superb understatement by Bill Draut, and acting a perfect indicator of the changes in style and attitude that would become part of the Teen Titans and the comics industry itself in later decades…

Maintaining the experiments with youthful authorial voices, the entertainment continues with a beautifully realised comedy-thriller as boy Bowman Speedy joins the team full-time. ‘Teen Titans: Stepping Stones for a Giant Killer!’ (#19, January/February 1969) is by Mike Friedrich, with stunning art from Gil Kane & Wally Wood, and pits the team against youthful criminal mastermind Punch who plans to kill the Justice League of America and thinks a trial run against the junior division a smart idea…

TT #20 took that long-running plot-thread of extra-dimensional invaders and gave it a counterculture twist in ‘Titans Fit the Battle of Jericho’: a spectacular rollercoaster romp deftly blending teen revolt, organised crime, anti-capitalist activism, bug-eyed monsters and cunning extraterrestrial conquerors written by Neal Adams, pencilled by him and Sal Amendola and inked by brush-maestro Nick Cardy – one of the all-out prettiest illustration jobs of that decade.

Team-up vehicle The Brave and the Bold # 83 (April-May 1969) then took a radical turn as in ‘Punish Not my Evil Son!’, the Teen Titans (sans Aqualad, who was dropped to appear more prominently in Aquaman and because there just ain’t that much sub-sea malfeasance) try to save Bruce Wayne’s latest foster-son from his own inner demons in a tense thriller about trust and betrayal by Haney & Adams.

Symbolic super-teens Hawk and Dove briefly join the proceedings for #21’s ‘Citadel of Fear’ (Adams & Cardy), chasing smugglers, finding aliens and ramping up the surly teen rebellion quotient whilst moving the invaders story-arc towards a stunning conclusion. ‘Halfway to Holocaust’ is only half of #22; the abduction of Kid Flash and Robin leading to a cross-planar climax as Wonder Girl, Speedy and a radical new ally quash the invasion forever, but still leave enough room for a long overdue makeover in ‘The Origin of Wonder Girl’ by Wolfman, Kane & Cardy.

For years the series – and DC in general – had fudged the fact that the younger Amazon Princess was not actually human, a sidekick, or even a person, but rather an incarnation of the adult Wonder Woman as a child. As continuity backwriting strengthened its stranglehold on the industry, it was felt that the team-tottie needed a fuller background and this moving tale reveals that she is in fact a human foundling rescued by Wonder Woman and raised on Paradise Island where their super-science gave her all the powers of a true Amazon.

They even found her a name – Donna Troy – and an apartment, complete with hot roommate. All Donna has to do is sew herself a glitzy new costume…

Now thoroughly grounded in “reality”, the team jet south in #23’s fast-paced yarn ‘The Rock ‘n’ Roll Rogue’ (by Haney, Kane & Cardy), seeking to rescue musical rebel Sammy Soul from his grasping family and subsequently, his missing dad from Amazonian headhunters.

This volume, and an era of relative innocence, ends with ‘Skis of Death!’ by the same creative team which sees the adventurous quartet vacationing in the mountains and uncovering a scam to defraud Native Americans of their lands.

It’s a terrific old-style tale but with the next issue (and collected volume) the most radical change in DC’s cautious publishing history made Teen Titans a comic which had thrown out the rulebook…

Although perhaps somewhat dated in delivery, these tales were a liberating experience for kids when first released and remain a highly entertaining experience even now. They truly betokened a new empathy with independent youth and tried to address problems that were more relevant to and generated by that specific audience. That they are so captivating in execution is a wonderful bonus. This is absolute escapism and absolutely delightful.
© 1967, 1968, 1969, 2018 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.